Many or Few: Which is the Better Recipe for Friendships?

By Janis Kupferer

We throw the term "friend" around a lot, and often without really defining it. Are we talking about an old friend, a new friend, or just a mere acquaintance? What is your definition of a friend, and how many do you need?

Defining a Friend
Since I author the Blog, I am tasked constantly with coming up with new topics and interesting subjects to write about. As an idea strikes me, I promptly write it down on the whiteboard in my office. For the last few months the following notation sat in red marker on the board, “many or few, which is better?” The question refers to what the optimum number of friends is for the average person, and honestly, I had no idea which side of the aisle I sat. This is why as other topics were selected and then erased from the board as complete, this sribble still occupied its space behind its bullet point. This week, however, I decide to tackle the question, and my strategy turned out to be a bit complicated.  

A Working Definition
To begin, I felt that I needed a solid definition of want exactly defines a friend. Debra Oswald, a psychologist at Marquette University, discovered four basic behaviors that, regardless of age, are necessary to maintain a friendship bond. I like her theory, so I’m using it as my definition for what constitutes a friendship.
  1. Self-disclosure:
  2. They have to share, you have to share, you both have to share—equally.

  3. Support:
  4. Both friends need to feel reciprocal support. (And this is especially important because you’ve just done a bunch of disclosing as per the requirement above.) Seriously, you have to know and whole-heartedly believe that the other has your back and is a constant source of positive support. 

  5. Interaction:
  6. It doesn’t matter whether there is two miles or two thousand miles between you, in order to establish and maintain a friendship, you have to show up and interact with each other—frequently. Phone calls and emails work, but as we’ll learn later, there is something very special about human touch. 

  7. Stay Positive:
  8. Absolutely, look to your friend as a source of support during difficult times; of course, tell her what an ogre your boss is time and again; and when that pain in your back just won’t go away, feel free to bemoan, wail, and complain to your best gal pal about it mercilessly. But remember that complaints can only color your conversations, and can’t be the foundation. Optimism is a key ingredient to friendship.

What the Scholars Say
So with a solid description of what a friendship is, its time to tackle the question of just how many to keep on speed dial. To start the debate, I found a study out of Northwestern University which suggests that it doesn’t really matter what you believe is best, biology—and your amygdala specifically, already decided the number of friends you’ll have. Our amygdala is part of our limbic system, and it moderates memories and emotions. It, so the study states, determines whether you’ll have many, many friends or just a few close ones.

Although researchers agree that a relationship exists between size of the amygdala and the number in your circle of friends, they haven’t yet determined which is the cause and which is the effect. Does your amygdala determine the number of friends you’ll have, or does having a lot of friends increase the size of your amygdala? That question remains unanswered, but still a fascinating one. Never the less, the researchers say “it could be 3 or it could be 30; biology determines the correct answer for each individual.”

And just when the biologist had that question answered, along came another study that provides a quite different answer to our question. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, developed “Dunbar’s Number,” the cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. That number starts with a core of five people, expanding out to a maximum of 150 (230 for especially social folks). What accounts for this finite number according to Dunbar? Two things: the size of the human brain and the amount of time we have to spend on the maintenance of those relationships. In a fantastic video of his research, Dunbar further explains that physical contact, or basic touch, is a great predictor of the significance of the friendship.

While modern biology and anthropology provides some sound data, no true report on friendships would be complete without hearing from Aristotle. In keeping with his reputation as a wise, wise fellow, Aristotle provides that there are three reasons why we select someone as a friend:
  • We deem them “good” because they share similar values and morals with us. 
  • We see a friendship with them as useful and provides a tangible benefit. 
  • We simply enjoy our time with them and find them very pleasant to be around. 

About the number of friends, Aristotle says that we can only be true to a handful of friends, since a true friendship requires regular interaction and a genuine wanting of the best for our friends. This is something that is only possible with a small number of people at any given time, Aristotle says.

Little Help from My Facebook Friends
Having received my answer from a bounty of researchers (ancient and modern), I still wanted to validate these results for myself. And what better way to get that validation than by asking my own friends … via Facebook.

My goodness did my query provide a range of opinions and emotions. A few of my friends are adamant that there is no limit on the number of friends one could have. For them, it is simply a matter of how you feel about another person. Others requested that I define “friend” before they could provide an accurate number. And still others promptly provided a figure that worked for them (being Type A, I especially appreciated these friends!) Those who did provide a hard figure absolutely agreed with all of our scholars, that the correct number fell between 3 to 5, or the handful as Aristotle described.

Honestly, 3 is the number that popped into my head, so I guess that I’m “normal” in a clinical kind of way. However, not everyone is in agreement it seems. For the record, Facebook puts the limit at 5,000.

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